Sunday, September 14, 2008

#19 Conflict in the Arctic? The Tenacity of Media Spin

Just hours after I returned, a week ago, from my trip to the Arctic Ocean, I was dismayed to open the New York Times and find on its editorial page hyperbole verging on that which other 
media sources use to perpetuate the myth of "fierce disputes over territory and natural resources" in the Arctic. ("Arctic in Retreat", September 8, 2008). As the sea-ice retreats, states are turning not to arms but to existing legal structures and a tradition of scientific and
diplomatic cooperation to address common problems as well as dis- agreements.

A helicopter from the Canadian icebreaker, the Louis Saint Laurent, on a friendly visit
to the USCGC Healy

Immediately after transporting our mapping crew to shore last week, The Healy turned right around and began breaking ice for a Canadian icebreaker, the Louis Saint Laurent. This month-long joint mission to map parts of the Arctic Ocean floor is scientific and diplomatic cooperation at its international best. Like the Russian mapping the NYT mentions in its editorial, the US and Canada are gathering data in preparation not for conflict but for submission in a staid and stable legal process designed to provide certainty for all states involved.  The Law of the Sea Convention establishes this orderly mechanism of rigorous scientific vetting for states seeking to extend their authority over larger portions of the continental shelf.  The United States is the only Arctic state not party to the Convention but is nonetheless mapping for its potential shelf extension in keeping with procedures agreed by the international community.

The territorial disputes referenced in the NYT editorial are also resolved not by conflict
but by diplomacy. In June 1990 Russia (then still the Soviet Union) and the United States signed a brilliantly conceived single maritime boundary treaty that precludes the need to renegotiate the boundary once the extended continental shelf limits are determined. Canada’s recent announcement that it plans to extend enforcement jurisdiction from 100 to 200 miles beyond its shores should raise concern.  But it must also be viewed within the context of the long-standing friendship and shared interests of the United States and Canada on such matters as environmental protection, trade (ca. $1.5 billion daily) and common security.   Their disagreement over the Northwest Passage has never flared out of control and continues to be the subject of diplomatic attention.

Other existing legal and diplomatic structures provide an imperfect but solid basis for Arctic states to resolve potential disagreements. The Arctic Council is a cooperative forum for states and the Inuit Circumpolar Conference to address a range of environmental and economic problems in the region. The Ilulissat (Greenland) Declaration, signed in May 2008, confirms the will of the five coastal Arctic states – Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States – to strengthen existing cooperation based on mutual trust and transparency. Treaties in force in the Arctic cover issues ranging from polar bear protection to pollution by dumping from vessels to biological diversity. Activists and diplomats alike should be concerned and asking hard questions about whether these agreements will be sufficient, or sufficiently enforced,to protect the Arctic, but to pretend that it is a lawless region up for grabs ignores the facts.
Above: The USCG Cutter Healy and the Canadian icebreaker Louis St. Laurent
underway together in the Arctic Ocean earlier this week.

To be sure, the Arctic now faces enormous environmental and governmental challenges. Non-Arctic states are also legitimately concerned as to whether the Arctic countries will be good stewards of the Arctic’s immense resources. Having just spent three weeks surrounded by the unearthly beauty and light-filled vastness of the Arctic Ocean, I more than endorse the New York Times’ call for cooperation in face of the potential for expanded resource exploitation, environmental degradation and security risks as the ice melts. But to characterize the Arctic as a “scene of commercial and territorial conflict” overstates the case. Perversely, it also contributes rhetorically to escalating tensions rather than under-girding the very cooperation that the paper advocates.

Icebreaking into the Arctic

The USCGC HEALY embarked Barrow, Alaska, in August 2008 to map the US extended continental shelf, or ECS, in the Arctic Ocean (HLY 0805). Healy sailed again from 7 August to 16 September, 2009 (HLY 0905) to continue ECS mapping, joining with the Canadian icebreaker, the Louis S. St.-Laurent. The two vessels mapped together again in 2010 (see HLY1002) and 2011 (HLY1102).

As the only law professor on the science crew, I was along on HLY 0805 and 0905 to better understand
the science behind the legal process that the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea establishes for states making ECS submissions. As to why the US is mapping now, even though it has not yet acceded to the Convention, read on both here, and in the Law of the Sea notes below.

Thanks to
Vermont Law School and especially to Larry Mayer, Director of the University of New Hampshire's Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping, for making my part in the trip possible.
Thanks, as well, to Adriane Colburn, for opening new windows on and for the deep.